By: Bill Gladstone, Director of North U and author of the North U Racing Trim, North U Racing Tactics, and North U Cruising and Seamanship books and discs.
When racing distances, there are several tactics to keep in mind: aim toward the finish line; sail fast and hard; keep your eye on the weather and; practice at night.
1. Sail Toward the Finish Line
Never mind the original rhumb line. Aim toward the finish. More boats win races with this simple strategy than any other. Don’t over think the strategy. Until you have a good reason to do something else just aim toward the finish.
2. Sail Fast
You can sail fast toward the finish, but often if you sail just a little high or low of the rhumb line you go much faster. Sailing 10 degrees off course increases sailing distance less than 2% and will often make you much faster. Sailing 15 degrees high or low increases the distance less than 4%… A distance race is defined as a race where the weather will change. The idea is to sail the course that puts you closer to the finish. If you sail a little further but much faster, you win. In short races, what goes up must come down, and sailing off course does not pay, but who knows what will be up or down at sunrise tomorrow… So sail fast.
3. The Weather Factor
Gather weather information from every available source. Stay away from high pressure, and position yourself to take advantage of new breeze, but beware sailing the forecast instead of the wind, or you may find yourself in perfect position for a weather change that happens later than expected (or never happens).
4. Sail Hard
Sail hard all day. Sail harder at night to maintain performance in more challenging conditions. Eat well, rest when you can, dress properly and sail fast. Rest more crew during the day, and keep fresh (rested) crew available for the overnight watches.
5. Practice at Night
In preparation for distance racing practice night sailing and practice short handed boat handling. Your night sailing practice will let you test that you are set up properly with lights as needed (and no lights for most sailing once your eyes adjust). Short handed boat handling work will allow you to develop methods to do most maneuvers with a short crew and also know which evolutions require that you call some or all of the off watch.
6. Sail Fast
Did I mention, sail fast? You can always go faster. Sailing just a little faster over the long haul provides the margin of victory. Increasing average speed just 2% (from 5.0 to 5.1) would allow you to finish a 24 hour race nearly half-an-hour earlier.